As the 1970s were coming to an end, the cultural flavour of genre filmmaking was also undergoing some changes. The rogue and unrestrained atmosphere of exploitation films was shifting towards something more aesthetically refined and anchored more decisively in what was happening in mainstream cinema of the time, a post-nouvelle vague, iconoclastic, self-aware recalibration. Having completed The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes, both revered as exploitation classics, Wes Craven’s filmmaking was also signalling he was ready to evolve his style into something else entirely.
Therefore, it is almost impossible to see Deadly Blessing, his 1981 follow-up to The Hills Have Eyes, as a logical continuation of Craven’s interests as it barely registers as stylistically familiar. However, this is not to say he was selling out or tempering his interests to satisfy wide audiences, nor does it have to be a knock-on effect of the film being technically produced by a bona fide studio. Instead, I choose to believe that Craven was simply channelling a cultural shift and funnelling its traits into his own filmmaking. To understand that, some context may be required.
It is undeniable that the 1960 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had a profound effect on filmmakers the world over. Some of the more prominent voices inspired by Hitchcock’s masterpiece were Italian genre filmmakers, such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, whose work (together with others) has become known under a collective moniker ‘giallo’. In essence, what these filmmakers were doing was applying a pure Hitchcockian inspiration and pushing it much further than the cultural atmosphere in Hollywood would allow Hitchcock, even if he wanted to. For want of a better description, giallo films like Suspiria, The Bay Of Blood, or Deep Red are easily described as examples of sleazy homage to Hitchcock’s monumental legacy.
What is more, this post-Hitchockian influence-once-removed eventually filtered back into American filmmaking, smuggled by some of the progenitors of The New Hollywood movement, like Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. In fact, De Palma’s work is by far most often described as consistently influenced by Alfred Hitchcock (think of Dressed To Kill as a distant cousin of Psycho and The Body Double as related to Rear Window). Nevertheless, it is likely more instructive to see his work as related to Hitchcock by proxy, because it is heavily steeped in the influence of giallo filmmakers. Over time, the aesthetic and thematic payload carried by the giallo inspiration crystallized in the form of what we understand as a slasher having spliced with the legacy of exploitation (Black Christmas, Halloween and later Friday The 13th) which gained immense popularity in the latter half of 1970s, right at the time when Wes Craven was also fishing for inspiration and gearing up for his next project.
Therefore, I prefer to see Deadly Blessing as much more than a footnote in Craven’s catalogue, or a forgettable dud squeezed between his more prominent works. I see it as a piece of evidence supporting a theory that Wes Craven was much more than a talented genre filmmaker. He was a stylistic divining rod. Consequently, Deadly Blessing is no longer an oddball folk horror very distantly related to The Wicker Man, but a synthesis of post-Hitchcockian influence infused with elements of giallo and its characteristic aesthetic bravado.
When filtered through this set of stylistic parameters of analysis, the film truly starts to make a lot of sense and becomes not only oddly satisfying but even honestly entertaining and intellectually nutritious. Granted, on its surface the story about a woman and her two friends being effective cultural outlanders living next door to a community of Hittites (who, according to one character in the film make the Amish look like swingers) looks far from interesting. However, a keen observed will quickly find key elements of familiarity tying this film to giallo, such as a mysterious black-clad stalker, a promise of a supernatural evil allegedly affecting the characters’ lives, or even the central premise of outsiders infiltrating an outright alien community and having to confront it in the process.
Interestingly however, in addition to these elements borrowed directly from Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Craven’s film functions on a similar aesthetic plane to the early works of Brian De Palma, like Sisters and Obsession, which are also tethered to Hitchcock both directly and indirectly. It is as though Craven was trying to imagine what it would be like to carry over some of his own innate sensibilities rooted in exploitation into a post-Hitchcockian ‘American giallo’, which – bizarrely enough – makes Deadly Blessing oddly reminiscent of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th with the way its intrigue is laid out, soft cinematography and on-the-nose winks at Psycho. This all adds up to an experience that is equally odd as it is enthused because it is a slasher and it is not. It is a folk horror and it kind of isn’t. It is giallo but not really. It is its own thing – Wes Craven’s hybrid giallo that transcends the limitations of the template and veers occasionally into the realm of abstract dread and highly suggestive imagery preying on deeply-seated irrational fears that would become the corner stone for Craven’s arguably most well-known film, Nightmare On Elm Street. In fact, Deadly Blessing even sports a bathtub scene which is an undisputed prototype for the now iconic image of Freddy’s gloved hand emerging from the water; this one has a snake in it.
All in all, it is hard to recommend Deadly Blessing to an unsuspecting viewer because it is likely not to resonate with anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to look beneath the surface-level storytelling and fish out these numerous references tying the film to Brian De Palma (even the very ending smells profoundly of Carrie, come to think of it), Dario Argento and Alfred Hitchcock. It’s all too easy to dismiss it as a schlocky dud that seems completely undecided whether it wants to favour atmosphere, intrigue or scares, while in fact it favours all of them in equal measures. Sure, it is a B-movie through-and-through, but it somehow feels important to the development of Wes Craven’s stylistic interests, which were expanding from commenting on societal issues of the time to include more self-reflective observations about cinema itself and fostering a type of self-awareness that was soon to flourish in his other films.